Winston Churchill with Harry Hopkins

In December 1940 Winston Churchill had written to President Roosevelt outlining the dire financial situation that Britain was descending into. It had become apparent that the British Empire could not afford to continue the war alone. Roosevelt’s proposed solution was to become known as the “Lend Lease Act”. First he needed re-assurance that Britain really could continue the war – not all US representatives in Britain believed in this.

Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.
Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.
Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.
Mr Churchill on board the battlecruiser HMS HOOD at Rosyth.

In December 1940 Winston Churchill had written to President Roosevelt outlining the dire financial situation that Britain was descending into. It had become apparent that the British Empire could not afford to continue the war alone. Roosevelt’s proposed solution was to become known as the “Lend Lease Act”. First he needed re-assurance that Britain really could continue the war – not all US representatives in Britain believed in this.

He dispatched his personal aide Harry Hopkins to report on the situation in Britain. Having lost the greater part of his stomach to cancer in 1937 Hopkins was a chronically weak man, unable to absorb nutrition properly. He was considered too ill to take on a formal role as Ambassador. Yet his judgement was so trusted by Roosevelt that he would later become known to Washington insiders as “the deputy President”.

Fortunately Churchill and Hopkins established very warm personal relations, laying the foundations for the great Alliance between the two nations. Hopkins’ visit to Britain was extended from two to six weeks, staying at 10 Downing Street.

The Prime Minister being welcomed by the Captain of the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, Captain C B Barry, DSO.
The Prime Minister being welcomed by the Captain of the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, Captain C B Barry, DSO.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins being welcomed by dockyard workers on board the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins being welcomed by dockyard workers on board the battleship HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.
The Prime Minister addressing ships' company and dockyard workers on board HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. The Prime Minister and Mr Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's Personal Representative in London, visit a Northern Port. 17 January 1941, Rosyth.
The Prime Minister addressing ships’ company and dockyard workers on board HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH.
The Prime Minister and Mr Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s Personal Representative in London, visit a Northern Port. 17 January 1941, Rosyth.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins at Fleet Air Arm Station, Donibristle.
The Prime Minister, Mrs Churchill, and Mr Hopkins at Fleet Air Arm Station, Donibristle.

German cruiser at Brest bombed

Determined efforts have been made during the week to inflict further damage on the ” Hipper ” class cruiser lying in dry dock at Brest. On five nights a total of 85 aircraft were despatched with this target as their principal objective, and, over this period, four direct hits on the cruiser are reported. In addition, considerable damage was done to warehouses and buildings in the dock area and widespread fires were observed.

The German cruiser Admiral Hipper was in dry dock at the French port of Brest for engine repairs. From the 16th January reconnaissance flight to evaluate the earlier raids.

Determined efforts have been made during the week to inflict further damage on the ” Hipper ” class cruiser lying in dry dock at Brest. On five nights a total of 85 aircraft were despatched with this target as their principal objective, and, over this period, four direct hits on the cruiser are reported. In addition, considerable damage was done to warehouses and buildings in the dock area and widespread fires were observed.

From the Air Situation report for the week see TNA 66/14/33

British forces maintain pressure on Tobruk

The garrison of Tobruk, believed to comprise one Italian division and certain ancillary troops, including 6,000 frontier guards, is still invested by our forces. There is also reason to believe that it has been reinforced by the two Blackshirt generals who retired from Bardia. If Tobruk falls, it is difficult to forecast where the Italians will make their next stand.

The siege of Tobruk continued. A battery of the famous British ’25 pounder’ artillery guns.

The garrison of Tobruk, believed to comprise one Italian division and certain ancillary troops, including 6,000 frontier guards, is still invested by our forces. There is also reason to believe that it has been reinforced by the two Blackshirt generals who retired from Bardia. If Tobruk falls, it is difficult to forecast where the Italians will make their next stand. Two infantry divisions are believed to be located between Derna and Benghazi; these may be used to cover the approaches to Benghazi, where a part of Italian G.H.Q. is now believed to be. There are no indications up to the present time of the arrival of reinforcements in Libya.

From the Military Situation for the week.

Constant and heavy pressure has been maintained on Tobruk, whilst aerodromes likely to assist in the defence of the position have been made untenable by the attacks of our aircraft. Reports of abandoned aircraft and landing grounds indicate that the enemy has withdrawn his air forces to the Benghasi area.

Benghasi was heavily attacked five times. Hits were registered on five large ships in the harbour, on the mole and on Government buildings. The neighbouring aerodromes of Benina and Berka were also successfully attacked, and much damage was caused to aerodrome buildings, hangars and aircraft on the ground. At Benina, at least twelve enemy aircraft were set on fire.

On the 8th January there was a very successful bombing attack on a convoy of motor transport near Jerabub by Blenheims, followed by a machine-gun attack by Hurricanes, as a result of which the convoy was abandoned.

Our fighters were also very active. They maintained offensive patrols in the Tobruk and other areas, and destroyed several enemy aircraft both in the air and on the ground.

Several reconnaissances of the Libyan coast were flown by our Sunderlands.

Enemy aircraft activity was slight. An attack was made on our troops in the Tobruk area, but little damage was caused.

From the Air Situation report for the week, see TNA CAB 66/14/33

Growing death toll in the Lodz ghetto

Before the arrival of the current frosts, when the death rate in the ghetto did not exceed 25 to 30 cases per day (before the war the average death rate among the Jewish population of the city amounted to six per day), there were 12 gravediggers employed at the cemetery. Today there are around 200.

Over a quarter of a million Jews were crammed into the Lodz ghetto, Poland.

Inside the Lodz ghetto, established in Poland’s second largest city in March 1940, the once prosperous Jewish population were being reduced to ever greater destitution. Food supplies were always tightening and, as the cold of the winter took hold, deaths began to rise sharply.

A small group, led by journalist Julian Cukier, maintained a collective diary known as the Chronicle of Lodz. They kept six simultaneous copies, conscious from the very start that their work was ‘for the record’, yet many of their entries are written in a newspaper style. And so the story of the attempted extermination of an entire people slowly unfolded:

14th January

‘You can’t die either these days,’ complained a woman who had come to arrange formalities in the mortuary office in connection with the death of her mother. There is nothing exaggerated about such complaints if one considers that, with the current increase in the death rate, a minimum of three days’ wait to bury the dead, sometimes even ten days, has become an everyday occurrence.

The causes of this abnormal state of affairs are worth noting. There are scarcely three horses left in the ghetto to draw the hearses, a totally inadequate number in view of the current increase in the death rate. Several times, there was such a ‘backlog’ in the transporting of bodies to the cemetery that, out of necessity, a sideless hauling wagon had to be pressed into service and loaded with several dozen bodies at the same time.

Before the arrival of the current frosts, when the death rate in the ghetto did not exceed 25 to 30 cases per day (before the war the average death rate among the Jewish population of the city amounted to six per day), there were 12 gravediggers employed at the cemetery. Today there are around 200. In spite of such a horrendously large number of gravediggers, no more than 50 graves can be dug per day. The reason: a lack of skilled labor, as well as problems connected with the ground being frozen. And this causes the macabre line to grow longer.

See The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-44

RAF maintain pressure in the desert

Hits were registered on five large ships in the harbour, on the mole and on Government buildings. The neighbouring aerodromes of Benina and Berka were also successfully attacked, and much damage was caused to aerodrome buildings, hangars and aircraft on the ground. At Benina, at least twelve enemy aircraft were set on fire.

The RAF operated from bases in the desert that offered only the most basic facilities.

Egypt and Libya

Constant and heavy pressure has been maintained on Tobruk, whilst aerodromes likely to assist in the defence of the position have been made untenable by the attacks of our aircraft. Reports of abandoned aircraft and landing grounds indicate that the enemy has withdrawn his air forces to the Benghasi area.

Benghasi was heavily attacked five times. Hits were registered on five large ships in the harbour, on the mole and on Government buildings. The neighbouring aerodromes of Benina and Berka were also successfully attacked, and much damage was caused to aerodrome buildings, hangars and aircraft on the ground. At Benina, at least twelve enemy aircraft were set on fire.

On the 8th January there was a very successful bombing attack on a convoy of motor transport near Jerabub by Blenheims, followed by a machine-gun attack by Hurricanes, as a result of which the convoy was abandoned.

Our fighters were also very active. They maintained offensive patrols in the Tobruk and other areas, and destroyed several enemy aircraft both in the air and on the ground.

Several reconnaissances of the Libyan coast were flown by our Sunderlands.

Enemy aircraft activity was slight. An attack was made on our troops in the Tobruk area, but little damage was caused.

From the weekly Air Situation report see TNA CAB 66/14/33.

Bombing attacks on Italian targets

On the night of the 12th/13th, five Wellingtons, also operating from this country, attacked the oil refineries at Venice. One large building was seen to collapse and another was hit by a heavy bomb. The last aircraft reported the target area to be a mass of flames. During these operations a large liner in the vicinity of Venice and hangars and workshops at Padua were machine-gunned.

An early image of Wellington bombers in flight, the only RAF bomber to remain in service throughout the war.

Italy.

On the night of the 11th/12th January seven Wellingtons operating from this country located and bombed the Royal Arsenal at Turin; all bombs fell in the target area causing large fires and heavy explosions. One other aircraft attacked a ball-bearing factory at Turin with similar results.

On the night of the 12th/13th, five Wellingtons, also operating from this country, attacked the oil refineries at Venice. One large building was seen to collapse and another was hit by a heavy bomb. The last aircraft reported the target area to be a mass of flames. During these operations a large liner in the vicinity of Venice and hangars and workshops at Padua were machine-gunned.

On the night of the 9th/10th January seven Wellingtons, operating from Malta, attacked the harbour and marshalling yards at Messina. A Naval oil storage depot was bombed, together with the marshalling yards and oil tanks nearby. Bombs also straddled cruisers and ships in the harbour.

With the object of destroying German aircraft operating from air bases in Sicily against our naval forces, ten Wellingtons were despatched from Malta to attack the aerodrome at Catania. The attacks appear to have been most successful. Photographic reconnaissance disclosed that thirty or forty aircraft on the ground were burned out or severely damaged. In addition, one hangar was destroyed, another severely damaged, and administrative buildings hit.

From the Air Situation report for the week see TNA CAB 66/14/33.

Pilot Officer William Lidstone "Willie" McKnight, a fighter pilot from Calgary, Canada, photographed during the Battle of Britain, when serving with No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF. Between May and November 1940, McKnight achieved 16.5 victories in combats over France and England. He was shot down and killed during a low level intruder sortie ('Rhubarb') over France, on 12 January 1941.
Pilot Officer William Lidstone “Willie” McKnight, a fighter pilot from Calgary, Canada, photographed during the Battle of Britain, when serving with No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF. Between May and November 1940, McKnight achieved 16.5 victories in combats over France and England. He was shot down and killed during a low level intruder sortie (‘Rhubarb’) over France, on 12 January 1941.

51 killed in direct hit on Bank Station

It was initially thought that 35 people had died, mainly those in the booking hall immediately under the impact of the bomb. As the rescue and recovery work continued it became apparent that the blast had travelled down the escalators and stairs, killing people in its path as well as people on the platforms deep underground.

Bomb crater in the middle of the City of London
The enormous crater created when a bomb fell on Bank underground station on the 11th January 1941.

The City of London, the commercial centre at the heart of London continued to be a target, long after the notable raid of 29th December had devastated so much of it.

The London Underground station ‘Bank’ lies under the intersection of roads in the heart of the City of London, close to the Bank of England. When it was hit by a bomb at a minute to 8pm on the 11th January it was initially thought that 35 people had died, mainly those in the booking hall immediately under the impact of the bomb. As the rescue and recovery work continued it became apparent that the blast had travelled down the escalators and stairs, killing people in its path as well as people on the platforms deep underground.

The final death toll was believed to be 51. The damage was so extensive that it was necessary for the Army to build a temporary ‘Bailey bridge’ across the crater.

Mr T Sergeant gave evidence to the subsequent enquiry

I actually escaped obliteration myself by about one minute, since, in company with a Hungarian doctor whom I had met in the train on the way up from Sevenoaks, I had just got into the Bank station and down on the Central Line platform before the bomb fell into the booking hall. What happened there I only know of second-hand. We were amongst those caught on the Central Line platform. The explosion was pretty fierce, the lights went out and the air was so thick with dust that torches were of little use. Most of those sleeping at the bottom of the escalator seemed to have been killed outright as well as one or two on the platform.

Just outside a few yards from where we were standing a large number were hurt by falling debris and tiles, or so it appeared in the dark. The main trouble was that in the darkness no one knew what to do, and here is my first comment – that some emergency lighting is required in the stations which cannot be classed as deep.

There appeared to be no first-aid post at all on the Central Line, unless it was wiped out and no-one to take charge. A P.C. did good work in finding the exit to the Northern line and showing some of the people where it was. A porter tried for a long time to get a message through to another station.

The doctor and I organised a few people as best we could to collect the casualties and prevent them being trampled on in the dark. I got hold of some soldiers to help carry some I of them down to the Northern Line lift entrance where the doctor started to work on them.

NB: I have updated this entry following further research, some sources give the number killed at 111 but this may be a reference to all casualties killed or seriously injured.

In 2016 (see comments) I was sent the following link to Nick Cooper’s ANALYSIS OF CASUALTY & FATALITY FIGURES, it is well worth checking out the rest of his site and his book London Underground at War.

The Bank of England and Royal Exhange after the raid during the night of 11 January 1941. The bomb exploded in the booking-hall of the Bank Underground Station. The crater, 1,800 sq ft in area, was the largest in London.
The Bank of England and Royal Exhange after the raid during the night of 11 January 1941. The bomb exploded in the booking-hall of the Bank Underground Station. The crater, 1,800 sq ft in area, was the largest in London.

Sometime after writing this post I was sent the following image by Scott Rinehart:

From a dryawing made from a window in the National Provincial Bank, January 13-18 1941. Signed "RG Mathews, 1948".
From a dryawing made from a window in the National Provincial Bank, January 13-18 1941. Signed “RG Mathews, 1948”.

Ferocious Luftwaffe attack on HMS Illustrious

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.

HMS Illustrious under attack on the 10th January 1941. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.
HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by german bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 Ju-87's and Ju-88's, to make it to Malta. A bomb explodes on HMS ILLUSTRIOUS while another near miss lands next to her.
HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the Mediterranean off the italian island of Pantelleria. In the first action by German bombers in the Mediterranean , HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 Ju-87’s and Ju-88’s, to make it to Malta.
A bomb explodes on HMS ILLUSTRIOUS while another near miss lands next to her.

The Luftwaffe announced their arrival in the Mediterranean with a vengeance. The new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, whose planes had so successfully attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, was the subject of a sustained attack by Ju 87 dive-bombers as it escorted a convoy to Malta. MaritimeQuest has a series of images of the attack and the damage to the ship.

The main forces of the Mediterranean Fleet, consisting of H.M. Ships Warspite and Valiant with H.M.S. Illustrious and 7 destroyers, were operating in support in the Eastern Basin and covering the passage from Alexandria to Malta of a convoy which was escorted by H.M. Ships Perth, Orion, York and Ajax. On the 10th January the Fleet was attacked several times by various types of aircraft.

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.

In this attack H.M.S Illustrious was severely damaged as a result of 6-direct bomb hits and several near misses, which caused fires and disabled her steering gear. Her casualties were 83 killed, 60 seriously and 40 slightly wounded, including several officers. H.M.S. Warspiie also sustained slight damage from a near miss. During this attack one Fulmar and one Swordfish were shot down, their crews being saved, and two enemy aircraft were shot down by gunfire.

At 1330 an unsuccessful attack was made on Illustrious by high level bombers and between 1600 and 1700 a second dive-bombing attack by about 30 aircraft was made on her and the Battle Fleet in which another hit was believed to have been made on Illustrious, and H.M.S. Valiant had one killed and 3 wounded from near misses.

During this attack Fulmars from Illustrious, which had refuelled at Malta, shot down 6 or 7 Ju 87 or 88’s and damaged several others. Heavy bombs of about 1,000 lb. were used in all these attacks. Illustrious, covered by the Battle Fleet, arrived at Malta at about 2100 after a final, but unsuccessful, attack had been made on her by torpedo bombers outside the entrance to Grand Harbour. Eleven of her Swordfish and 5 Fulmars were destroyed by fire.

From the weekly Naval Situation report see TNA CAB/66/14/33

Air Mechanic Rayburn was on board HMS Illustrious and somehow lived to tell his story:

My action station as with all maintenance crews, was in the hanger with the aircraft, which by the way were all heavily armed, and loaded with torpedoes ready for an attack on the Italian Fleet.

Illustrious was armed with 16 4.5 dual purpose guns, and 8 6 barrelled 2lb quick firing AA weapons.  The ship kept jumping and shaking.  Several large bombs hit the shop aft, and the after hanger was on fire.  The noise was indescribable.  In my baptism of fire, all that sticks in my mind are impressions. 
I was standing more or less in the centre of the hanger.  A chap came down from the flight deck; his rubber suit was full of holes with blood leaking from all of them.  I helped carry him down to the casualty station in the washroom flats.

The surgeons were busy.  Blood washed from side to side with the sway of the ship. 
I returned to my action station in the hangar.  The ship continued to rock and sway.

I looked up with fear and apprehension.  Then there was an almighty flash as a 1,000 lb bomb pierced the 4 inch armoured deck and exploded.  I was only aware of a great wind, and bits of aircraft, debris, all blowing out to the forward lift shaft of 300 tons, which was also blown out. 
There were dead and wounded all around.  My overalls were blown off and I had small wounds to the back of my head and shoulder.
I was probably 10-15 feet away from the bomb when it exploded.  Luck I survived?  I prefer the thought of someone looking out for me. 
The hanger by then was burning all over.  The ships commander came and said, ‘come on lads close the armoured doors.’  The overhead sprays then flooded the hanger.

The ship started to sink by the stern, and everyone had to blow up lifebelts.  Then came a spot of humour in all that chaos.  Poor old Corporal Gater came through a side door white as a sheet saying ‘I wish I hadn’t bloody joined.’ 
The battering carried on for six to seven hours. 
There were many wounded piled up.  The aft surgeons station had been destroyed, and the forward station was unable to cope quickly with so many casualties. 
Captain Boyd finally steered with the engines into Malta.  The ship was quiet at last.

See Acepilots for his full story and much more on HMS Illustrious.

A hole in the armoured flight deck of HMS Illustrious where a 1,250 pound bomb penetrated. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.

Some repairs were carried out at Malta (where there were further air attacks) before HMS Illustrious returned to Alexandria. There she was sufficiently patched up to make the journey, via the Suez Canal and round Africa, to U.S. shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. She was out of the war for the remainder of the year.

POSTSCRIPT

In 2014 Andrew Wilson wrote to me:

During 2000, some friends of mine moved into a house in Epsom, Surrey, where the previous owners had left a desk. Tucked away in the desk was a letter from HMS Illustrious, a personal letter, with references to the Malta convoy.

Attempts have been made to try to trace the identities of the addressee and the writer, so far without much progress. It is almost certainly one Royal Navy officer writing to another. It would appear that the letter was addressed to an officer who had formerly served on HMS Illustrious and was anxious for news of the casualties sustained in January 1941. There can be little doubt that the letter is authentic and refers to this action and the aftermath.

This is a raw and powerful document that deserves to be seen more widely, a vivid memorial of what these men went through:

HMS Illustrious
3 March 1941

My dear old E.J.,

Your very kind letter of 16th January has just arrived. I knew how you would feel it and longed to be able to assure you that all the team you knew were still alive. I not only could not but dared not say anything until we left Malta and got to Alex as our expectation of life was not very high. But, as you know, we all survived and live to fight again.

How the buzz about Bill started I have no idea as he was more full of life than anyone! My chief sorrows were Lt. Gregory whom you may remember was very sweet to Elizabeth. He was hit on the spine by a bomb splinter and fell down saying ‘I think something has hit me.’ He then turned very grey and asked for morphia knowing he was dying. Keevil gave him a shot and then he had to be moved as a fierce fire was raging under the quarter deck where he was lying. A marine picked him up and his back was heard to break. He was, I think, already dead.

Luddington, ex England and Navy rugger and our Master at Arms, was blown to bits in the hanger where a bomb exploded. He was a golden man.

Clifford, a Lieut. and pilot who had done very well at Taranto, was wounded in the first attack and then devoted himself to the other wounded. After the third attack he was never seen again. Either he was blown overboard or he disintegrated. He was a pattern of gallantry and gentility and one of the best three-quarters we have had for a long time.

Our young marine Manisty, whom Les knew, was killed by a bomb which did not wound him but just blasted him. The other officer casualties you would not know unless you remember Mr Anstis our gunner. He was blown to bits by a bomb which hit the pompom just in front of the bridge. He and all the crew were in an awful mess but were clearly killed instantly. I ordered them to be thrown overboard as they were dreadful sights. Arms, legs, heads and trunks going over the side were awful to see but were better there than lying about the deck where they chilled the stomachs of others.

Analysing one’s feelings afterwards I felt no sorrow at the time as my feelings were that the dead had perhaps the easiest job. Nor was I afraid, it was all so terrific and one’s responsibility so great that I had no uncomfortable feelings other than intense sorrow for the ship as I never expected her to be of any use again. I was on the wing bridge watching the bombs come down and I saw both lifts fly into the air like leaves. An amazing sight.

Fear came later when I realised we must have more attacks before reaching Malta. I then felt utterly sick for a while and trembled from head to foot. I went down to my sea cabin, took a good hold of myself, offered up a prayer that I’d do my stuff and then went back and was waggling the engines to steer her for the next 8 hours and through 2 more attacks without any particular feeling other than an unsatisfied desire for food. From breakfast until 10 pm, when we secured I only had cocoa and a biscuit which Lloyd the Padre brought me.

Our real strain came with the repeat attacks at Malta. On one occasion I was ashore not 20 yards from a cave shelter and the ship was 100 yards away. On the warning I walked to the gangway saying to myself after all there is nothing I can do and when I got to the gangway I stopped, feeling utterly cowardly and bloody nearly ran for the shelter. However I climbed slowly and reluctantly up the gangway and then felt alright. The others were the same I think. I allowed no one on board (there were wonderful shelters) except the gun crews and supply parties. Some of them failed to turn up and we manned the guns with 4 commandos, 6 Lt Cdrs, 2 Paymasters Seamen and Westmacott , 4 Po’s and 6 first class able seamen.

Rosey Barker and I went to the air defence position on the top bridge where we directed the guns on to the targets until the attack developed and then we just watched. However if you have seen Bill you will have heard as stirring a yarn as ever was spun. I sent Bill home because we did learn a lot and I wanted the powers that be to know what we learnt. To say I was indifferent to the fact that Bella had had a baby would be a ruddy lie, but Bill must never know that I thought of that first! He was splendid and deserved a little thought of that kind.

I think my worst job was to see people suffering from strain. It was horrible and some got it badly. Tamplin the Chief, a fat cheerful self indulgent bachelor went ashore and just couldn’t come back so I sent him to hospital. Duckworth, who was badly blasted, cried at the least excuse and yet stuck at it and was always there though I think useless. Men I thought tough were no good at all in fact the only really good ones were the team and a few sailors and engineers of the quiet nice type. Martin whose funny little wife vamped old N.R. was the senior engineer and was the supreme man of the whole show. His guts and skill were quite remarkable and he was quite delighted when owing to the chief cracking he was left with the whole responsibility.

The senior gunner went to the hospital to see the wounded and collapsed staying there! Others in varying degrees were looking like death but they stuck it well. I think I saved them all from going really potty by abandoning ship for 3 days after the Sunday attacks. It was a ghastly thing to do but I had to do it and as usual got away with it as during those 3 days we were not attacked. Had I not done so half of us would have been loonies and in any case we would not have saved the ship. On the Thursday they all came back gladly and were able to produce the goods for an awful passage to Alex. I have often had to bear responsibility but never anything to equal this. To them the 3 days were a rest, to us they were just hell but I knew it was right.

I seem to have run on a bit but your very kind thoughts in your letter and various inspired me to tell you a little, added to Audrey’s they all help to make a picture of which we are all, not without justification, very proud.

I went to a ship’s company dance the other night and jawed with some of them. We were a happy family and I did not realise quite how much they hung on what I said and did.

God bless you both your T.6 (not clearly decipherable)

D.B. [but looks like D.W.]

I thought this was possibly written by the Captain – but there was confusion over whether it was signed D.B. or D.W. . This account by Malta at War Museum suggests that he was Denis Boyd – and this has been confirmed by Alistair Horn (see comments below).

A near miss. HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the Italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by German bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 ju-87's and ju-88's, to make it Malta.
A near miss. HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the Italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by German bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 ju-87’s and ju-88’s, to make it Malta.

In November 2014 I was pleased to be able to add the following account by 92 year old Sydney Millen:

I remember that on the 9th January our escorts including “Warspite” did a practice air defensive exercise, and to all our eyes nothing could penetrate that barrage. How wrong could we be proved.

From first light the action started, HMS Gallant had her bows blown off after hitting a mine, and then towards noon action stations was sounded, and from then on all hell broke loose. I at the start was on duty in the after end of the hanger, but in what seemed a short space of time there was a terrific explosion for’ard and what I am sure was the forward lift was struck, luckily despite the debris etc I was unhurt and left the hanger.

After that the ship shudderred many times as she was hit and like many of my comrades I helped in the rescue of the many injured. One of the after gun turrets suffered a near direct hit and the carnage was awful. After a period owing to damage to our steering gear we were just going in circles, quite a target for the aircraft attacking, our escort had I presume decided to keep a fair distance as they were not conspicuous by their presence.

Anyway that’s as maybe , we eventually arrived at the entrance to Malta harbour, with what seemed to me crowds of people, cheering us in, I often wondered if they would have been so enthusiastic if they had realised that this day would have been the start of the terrible ordeal to which they would have to suffer in the coming years.

Anyway we eventually tied up and the following days were spent in the unenviable task of clearing up, not pleasant, the ship was in dock for I think several days, but as what was left of my sqdn. was ashore I left the ship and stayed at Hal Far aerodrome for I think several months doing what we could to defend Malta.

Not very specific I know, but a day I shall always remember, my first taste of action.

The view of the flight deck from the ship's bridge.
The view of the flight deck from the ship’s bridge.

EXTRA PICTURE ADDED March 2014

Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing. I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo "854 Squadton R.N. "Illustrious"aircraft carrier.
Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing.
I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo
“854 Squadton R.N. “Illustrious”aircraft carrier. Courtesy James Doherty, see comments below.

Maiden Flight of Lancaster Bomber

Roy Chadwick the chief designer at Avro had designed the two engined Manchester bomber to a Air Ministry specification. It was not a success and there were particular problems with the powerful Rolls Royce Vulture engines, which were unreliable. Chadwick independently started to develop the design of the airframe to accommodate four of the tried and tested Rolls Royce Merlin engines.

Brtish Avro Lancaster Bomber in flight
The Avro Lancaster first flew on 9th January 1941, it would not enter service for another year.

Roy Chadwick, the chief designer at Avro, had designed the twin engined Manchester bomber to an Air Ministry specification. It was not a success and there were particular problems with the powerful Rolls Royce Vulture engines, which were unreliable. Chadwick independently started to develop the design of the airframe to accommodate four of the tried and tested Rolls Royce Merlin engines. From this process the Lancaster bomber emerged, destined to become the principal aircraft of Bomber Command and one of the most famous aircraft ever built. Sam Brown the test pilot of Avro described the aircrafts performance following the test flight as ‘marvellous- easy to fly and light on the controls’.

Roy Chadwick was a driven man, demanding of those working for him but also of himself. When Chadwick’s daughter, who watched the flight alongside her father, suggested he should be very pleased he merely replied ‘Yes I am, but in this business one cannot rest on one’s laurels. There is always another and another aircraft’.

See Leo McKinstry: Lancaster – The Second World War’s Greatest Bomber

Australians herd their Italian prisoners

These men from the dockside of Sydney and the sheep stations of the Riverina presented such a picture of downright toughness with their gaunt dirty faces, huge boots, revolvers stuffed in their pockets, gripping their rifles with huge shapeless hands, shouting and grinning — always grinning — that the mere sight of them must have disheartened the enemy troops.

A few guards escort the masses of Italian prisoners of war from Bardia into captivity, 8th January 1941.

Pictures of the masses of Italian prisoners taken at Bardia were flashed around the world. Mussolini’s military pretensions were revealed to be little more than a posture. His troops were also retreating in Albania, reeling from their failed invasion of Greece. German military predictions that the Greeks would prevail had proved correct. Hitler had now to consider his support for his principal ally. Strategically he was uninterested in North Africa but he could not allow Mussolini’s regime to fail and that meant giving him military support.

Meanwhile the reputation of Australian troops was in the ascendant. They had been in Egypt for over a year and had been eager for action. Wavell may even have believed that they would have caused more trouble in the base areas had they not been brought into the campaign. They had been brought into the battle late, even while they were under equipped, but their success now resounded around the world.

Operation Compass was far from over and troops were needed to maintain the momentum on Tobruk. Outnumbered by their enemy during the battle, the few troops left to guard the prisoners were now massively outnumbered. Their reputation was such that they encountered few difficulties:

Australians, cigarettes in the corner of their mouths and steel helmets down over their lined eyes, squatted here and there among the prisoners, or occasionally got to their feet with a bayoneted rifle and shouted, ‘Get back there, you,’ when some Italian started to stroll away.

These men from the dockside of Sydney and the sheep stations of the Riverina presented such a picture of downright toughness with their gaunt dirty faces, huge boots, revolvers stuffed in their pockets, gripping their rifles with huge shapeless hands, shouting and grinning — always grinning — that the mere sight of them must have disheartened the enemy troops.

For some days the Rome radio had been broadcasting that the ‘Australian barbarians’ had been turned loose by the British in the desert. It was a convenient way in which to explain away failures to the people at home.

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43